Friday, December 28, 2007

Ritual Self-Mummification: The Strange Case of Japan's Auto-Deities

In a small mountainside temple overlooking the Sea of Japan on Japan's west coast, a Buddhist monk slowly chants a mantra and raises the small curtain above a dimly lit altar. The ornate curtain rises to reveal the preserved body of the fourteenth century priest Kochi. Enclosed in a small glass shrine, Kochi is worshipped as a form of living god, or sokushinbutsu—a priest who practiced ritual self-mummification, effectively starving himself to near-death over a period of years, before being entombed underground while still alive.


Kochi, Japan's oldest extant sokushinbutsu, mummified himself in 1363 at the age of 66. Today, his body is still reasonably well preserved, his fingers crooked talon-like, the darkened flesh drawn tight to his face. Dressed in ceremonial robes he sits curled in the lotus position in his hermetically sealed gilded shrine. The monks of Saishoji Temple, such as our guide, Ato-san, have tended their auto-deity for generations and are reasonably accustomed to visitors—Kochi was immortalized in Bokushi Suzuki's 1841 novel Snow Country Tales and is a minor celebrity to Japanese-culture mavens.

Saishoji Temple is a part of the Shingon sect, an Esoteric Buddhist school that was established in Japan in the ninth century. The sokushinbutsu—there are at least sixteen in Japan—are initiates who succeeded in mummifying themselves through a combination of lengthy ritualistic hermitage and extreme asceticism, as their name denotes: Sokushinbutsu means, literally, attaining Buddhahood while still alive. Though also known generically as miira (apparently a confusion of the foreign borrowings myrrh and mummy), sokushinbutsu is far more accurate as it captures the unique nature and purpose of these Japanese mummies, priests who undertook a lengthy ritualistic death in order to assist their communities and achieve enlightenment.

The mummies have always been something of an open secret in Japan—while there is no attempt to hide their existence, very few people are aware of them. They were first studied scientifically in the 1960s when researchers from Tokyo's Waseda University investigated the centuries-old rumours of indigenous mummies. Upon finding the mummies actually existed, scholars expected to discover signs of post-mortem mummification of the corpses, carried out in a similar fashion to their famous Egyptian, Aztec and Inca counterparts: the first step in any traditional mummification process is always the removal of the internal organs, for these quickly decay and release toxins throughout the body, hastening decomposition. When tests on the sokushinbutsu showed that the internal organs were still present, the researchers realised that these monks had not been preserved by their peers post-mortem. Rather, they had practised ritual self-mummification while still alive.

Self-Mummification for Dummies

The process of becoming a self-made mummy is long, slow and excruciatingly painful, taking from three to ten years. The procedure the monks followed developed over a 900 year period, and though there were different variations, it generally consisted of three equal states, each 1000 days long. For the first 1000 day period the monk adopted a strict diet that consisted of only small amounts of soba (buckwheat) dough and walnuts, hazelnuts, and nutmeg gathered from the surrounding forest. The diet served to reduce the ascetic's body fat dramatically, and as fat decomposes quickly after death, it increased the chances of successful mummification. In the second 1000 day period, the ascetic's diet became even more limited: only bark and the roots of pine tree were ingested. The monk became increasingly emaciated as his body fat reduced to nothingness and his body's water-content similarly declined. Though greatly weakened and increasingly skeletal in appearance, the monk continued to subject himself to long periods of prayer and chanting mantras.

Nearing the end of the second 1000 day period, the monk drank tea made from the juice of the Urushi, or Japanese Varnish tree. A caustic, extremely toxic sap—even its vapour can cause a rash—it is usually used to make a highly durable coating for Chinese and Japanese lacquerware. Drinking the tea caused the monk to vomit, perspire and urinate extensively, further reducing the fluids in his body, as well as causing a large build up of poisons. These poisons, however, played an important part of the mummification process, for they would also kill any organism that tried to consume the priest's flesh after death.

The monk, by then severely debilitated and, one assumes, in tremendous physical pain, was ready for the third and final stage in the process, described in a pamphlet from Kaikoji Temple: “When the priests were near death, stone shelters were constructed three metres underground. The priests were then put into wooden coffins and buried in the shelters with only a bamboo tube for air. In the coffins the priests continued their ascetic practices, sitting in meditation, reciting mantras, and maintaining their strict diet.”

Entombed in his subterranean chamber with only bark and roots to eat and a bell to signal their continued existence to the other monks, the initiate waited for death. “When the sounds of their prayers [or the bell] could no longer be heard, the priests were dug up to confirm their deaths and were then reburied. After three years and three months, they were again dug up, placed in shrines, and worshipped as living gods.” Unlike other mummies, the process finished with death: “No other methods were used in the mummification process”—hence the presence of internal organs that scholars were amazed to discover.

Having successfully attained Buddahood, the mummies were usually taken to a particular temple, where generations of monks such as Ato-san tended for them. In the hilltop Kaikoji Temple in Sakata, Yamagata Prefecture, we found two very well preserved sokushinbutsu, Chukai and Enmyokai, who are enshrined side by side in their quiet suburban temple. The two gods today sit in the same position in which they were lowered into the ground to die, in 1755 and 1822 respectively, and face the three holy mountains of Dewa Sanzan where they undertook their rites.

Dying to Help

It is still something of a mystery why these priests would submit themselves to what must have been extraordinarily drawn out and painful deaths. As followers of Esoteric Buddhism, the monks already led lives of prayer, fasting, asceticism and pilgrimage. A ritual death would therefore be the culmination of a lifelong spiritual quest. A number of the temples stress that the priests did it for the benefit of the local populous. Whether to prevent droughts, or illness among their communities, the monks believed that their deaths would help alleviate the suffering of the populace. It is for this reason a number of the sokushinbutsu have only one eye—as eye disease was widespread, it was not uncommon for devout monks to remove an eye to help prevent the illness striking others.


The Dainichi temple, deep within Dewa Sanzan—the three holy mountains of Yamagata Prefecture—played a central role in the mummification process. The majority of the monks who mummified themselves did so near this temple on the slopes of Mount Yudono, one of Japan's three most sacred mountains and long regarded by the Shingon sect as a residence of the gods, or kami. On this mountain is a sacred spring that local monks still believe holds special medicinal powers, and drinking its water assumed a special role for the monks seeking to become sokushinbutsu. The spring, tests have revealed, contains dangerously high levels of arsenic. When ingested, arsenic causes organ failure and cell death. It is also, however, a strong preservative—Napoleon Bonaparte's body was found to be extraordinarily well-preserved when it was exhumed 20 years after his death as a result of the high levels of arsenic in his system. Monks who drank from the spring on Mount Yudono would have had a far greater chance of success in their quest to be mummified, and the legendary slopes of the mountain assumed the favoured place for the practice for this reason.

Nevertheless, the mummification process was far from reliable, and often the body simply decomposed during the three year burial. In these cases, the priest had failed to become sokushinbutsu, and was reburied permanently in a ordinary grave. It is uncertain how many monks attempted to obtain living godhood, but literature from the temples makes it clear that the vast majority failed, indicating that hundreds of initiates may have committed ritual suicide over the last 1000 years. The process itself was outlawed in 1909 by the Meiji government, which carried out a sustained national campaign in favour of Shinto, Japan's indigenous religion.

An Obscure Godhood

There are twenty-eight known sokushinbutsu in Japan, achieving godhood over a nine century period between the first in 1081 and last in 1903. The majority of the sixteen still viewable are in temples in northern Honshu, Japan's main island, although not all are sokushinbutsu. There are also cases of more standard mummification, such as that of Yasuhira Fujiwara in Chusonji Temple, whose head had been decapitated by sword blows prior to death. The four auto-deities visited for this article were, however, all sokushinbutsu.

The temples are often small, unassuming affairs that are, unsurprisingly, scattered around the sacred mountains of central Yamagata. Nangakuji temple, the resting place of Tetsuryo-kai, sits quietly in the blandly anonymous suburbs of Tsuruoka. When we asked the monk—who was loading crates of empty beer bottles into his car as we arrived—if we were at the correct temple, he simple opened the door behind us, revealing the mummy. The attractive yet unassuming Kaikokuji temple, which hosts two sokushinbutsu, is located within a veritable maze of suburban Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in the small city of Sakata.

The mummies were all revealed with a minimum of fuss and are regarded by their wards as a normal feature of the temple, although of the ones we visited, there is usually a small ceremony as the mummy is unveiled. The temples and their unique inhabitants are not well known and—with the exception of the famous Dainichi temple on Mount Yudono—are largely unvisited. None of the mummies are on open display in the main temple, it was only after a specific request to see them that their shrines were revealed. Most Japanese, although they partially understand the title 'sokushinbutsu' (particularly in its written form), are unaware of the existence of these auto-deities—until they are told by foreigners who can't believe what they've stumbled upon, that is. Located far off any tourist trails, the sokushinbutsu enjoy a surprising anonymity in their obscure temples, quietly hiding their extraordinary history in the suburbs and mountains of Japan.

Fate Magazine, May 2007

Some notes on this article:

It has been noted that the use of Buddhist terms and concepts within this article are not used in accordance with more familiar forms of Buddhism. No, they are not. They are, however, used in exactly the way the monks use them to describe their beliefs in their literature and in person, both in English and Japanese. The sects described in the article follow the esoteric teachings of Kukai (774-835) who sought to 'attain enlightenment in this existence' (sokushin jobutsu).

Furthermore, please bear in mind that the boundary between Buddhist and Shinto belief collapses completely at a number of these sites, with Shinto and Buddhist elements frequently evident side by side. This is particularly true of Shugendo, the native Japanese religion that combines Shingon Buddhist, Shinto, and Taoist elements. In Japan, the forceful separation of the these religions in favor of State Shinto only occurred during the Meiji period (1868-1912), when the process described above was outlawed. Again, this results in a form of Buddhist belief and practice that may strike many as strange.

Since writing this article in January, I have discovered from the staff at one of the temples that at least one of the sixteen extant mummies is a fake. His 'corpse' actually decayed long ago, but the monks replaced his flesh and covered it with lacquer to preserve it. This finding does not imply that the other Sokushinbutsu are fake, but it does deepen the mystery somewhat. Clearly, it's best to regard this article as an introduction to a very interesting topic, with further investigation pending.

The pronunciation is: soh-koo-shin-boo-tsu ('tsu' as in 'tsunami'), but said fast.

- Chris Mathews, July 4, 2007 (Minor revisions to original article made on July 11, 2007)

All content copyright 2006-2007, Chris Mathews.


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